Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Looking Good

In Memory, Photo Courtesy of the Artist

Rachel Jones Deris
Diboll Art Gallery, New Orleans

Our daily lives expose us to constant visual stimulus. Persistent and cursory engagement of our eyes seems to leave little room for more deliberate deployment of sight, which is to say, looking. Of the sight verbs–to see, to glance, to glimpse, to watch, and to look–looking seems to be the most directed, but it also implies an openness, a receptivity. It is the one most useful in engaging with art.

The first time I saw a painting by Rachel Jones Deris was in 2008. She is a confirmed painter who does not laurel-rest, who seeks new ground, and her work is continuously fresh. Compared to previous exhibitions, this group of paintings relies less on lyrical titles to buttress the content, and the content is harder to define. These paintings were surprisingly difficult to write about perhaps because they encouraged a suspension of thought, a resistance to conclusion. There are few or no conceptual footholds, save the title of the show and a couple of more expansive titles of paintings. The paintings lean toward abstraction but not closely enough to own that label nor are they descendants of notable abstract painters. They are representational but not in that irreverent I just found this image online-way. They are not geometric and they do not emphasize drawing. They are not political, narrative, or about anything you can easily put your finger on. I guess you could say they are landscapes in the sense that they (loosely) depict flora and in one case, fauna. All the things that these paintings are not lead us to what they are about.

In the end, I think this work is actually about looking. These paintings are a result of the artist looking, suspending her understanding of an image. I imagine that instead of looking at an image and concluding, I know what is there, she keeps asking what is there? What could be there? As a result we ask the same.

Rachel Jones Deris works from photographs, collected, altered, pared down. Paintings, any paintings, change and shift as you look at them, change from one viewing to the next. If a photograph freezes a moment, a painting lets it loose, leaves a moment eternally without conclusion. This is the mysterious potential of painting. These paintings, though they begin with a photographic image are not about photography or even image. If in an abstract way they are about looking, more practically they are about paint, lush, juicy paint. The designation “a painter’s painter” describes an artist who exhibits a confident and intuitive handling of paint while not subjugating this inherently unruly medium. Rachel Jones is a painter’s painter.

These paintings are made on Yupo mounted on panel. Yupo is synthetic paper, in layman’s terms it's plastic. Ad copy boasts its properties as stain-resistant and non-absorbent. You can see in these paintings how the paint sits on the surface of the Yupo, stains it to a degree, but doesn’t mingle with the ground. I confess I am a Yupo skeptic. While many painters work on a ground of acrylic gesso, which is also in part plastic, gesso contains calcium carbonate, or, chalk. This chalk is found in nature and brings to gesso a bit of nature’s unpredictability. I am not concerned about the archival integrity of the Yupo, its more of an aesthetic question: What would these paintings look like if they had been painted on gesso or even directly on panel?  On the other hand, Yupo resonates with the source material and process. The origins of these paintings are slick: a photograph, magazine page or inkjet print. It might make sense that the paintings begin on an equally sterile surface.

Stag, Photo Courtesy of the Artist
The paint seems to sit on the surface and the illusion of distance is built not by omission but addition. The artist piles on paint in spaces other artists would address with the sparest vocabulary. These are landscapes (all but one) but there is almost no deep space. Untitled (Grove) relies on an erasure to articulate trees. Meanwhile, the space between the trees is built up, a complicated articulation of color and directional marks bringing the distance past the foreground to the surface of our eyes. In Stag I find the inverted relationship cleaner cut and less convincing. The painting as a whole is way out there in its palette and spatial logic. But the popular and likeable shape of a stag, sits neatly center stage at a likable scale, keeping the painting from being too strange. The space may not have held its own without a form to anchor it, but the way that form was drawn, undermines the painting’s sense of freedom and confidence.

There were two paintings in the show that were like nothing I have seen. In Memory is a still life, a bouquet. A bouquet! Sill life is the wallflower (pun intended) of all the genres. Nonetheless I kept going back to this painting. My heart rate actually accelerated when I looked at it. It is gorgeous without being pretty. It is a still life, an inanimate object that seems to vibrate and sway. Many of the flowers are articulated in warm browns on white and when pink was used it was not as the color of the flowers but the shadows. The warm, saturated blues of the background press forward to tangle with floral greens, which do not seem to content to remain in the bouquet or even within the edges of the painting. And this bouquet is not anchored in a vase; the blue background continues across the bottom of the painting, the flowers pressing forward toward us.

I can compare looking at In Memory to looking at other paintings of flowers. But I can’t compare looking at Untitled (Weed) to any painting I have seen. On the left there is a dark passage cut by yellowish lines. On the right, the illusion of grass is confused by light blue hatching, almost a shape, dissected by lines of greens and browns. This illogical light blue has a satellite mark, a mark of the same blue resting strangely on top of an already strange passage of browns and yellows. To describe this painting is almost futile because the experience of looking at it is optically baffling, it makes vision feel like a physical activity. The palette, the composition, the articulation of the subject are completely original, the result of an artist who will bushwhack, who will step off the path and find her own way, who will treat each painting as a discovery. There is not a single uninteresting square inch in this painting.

It troubles me that so much of what I see in the world I have no choice about and also that I make the wrong choices about what to look at: advertisements, products, signage, screens, cars, junk mail, etc. A countermeasure to all that is to go look at paintings, especially paintings this stimulating, this good. These paintings require no discipline to look at them. They will seduce you into looking and when you eventually leave the gallery you will find yourself more attentive to leaves, and light and stones, and shadows, and spaces.

Please note: This show has been extended through December.

Untitled (Weed), Photo Courtesy of the Artist
Untitled (Grove), Photo Courtesy of the Artist 

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Good People

James Taylor Bonds   Good Country People   48 x 48 in
James Taylor Bonds
Good Country People
Coup d’oeil, New Orleans

To Ken Capone, the director of Coup d’oeil (with whom I have had many conversations about art) I said, I don’t think I like these paintings...but I don’t think these paintings are trying to make me like them. For that I totally respect them.

The characters in these paintings are, well, off-putting. Some are pitiable, inspiring the urge to politely look away. Others are kind of scary. You want to look away but you don’t. These figures, often nude, sometimes clothed in sober neutrals do not look like good country people. In fact, even the country itself looks bereft of natural beauty. Take another route altogether if you can, but definitely don’t stop your car around here. 
James Taylor Bonds  The Felling   30 x 24 in
I don't know if any of these characters belong to Flannery O'Connor's short story Good Country People or even if the show is referring to this story, but they certainly share the author's sensibility and the looming air of malice in so many of her stories. 

Content aside,  most of these works are painted with a narrow palette. The couple that aren't seem like they might belong to an adjacent but different body of work. The breakdown of space is complicated, the figure/ground relationship somewhere between convincing and not convincing. The surface is reserved; only occasional brushmarks rise to a texture.

Believing a couple of the works were painted in oil, I thought maybe the artist used some low-quality oil paint. Then I learned that they were acrylic. This fact can account for flatness as well as the stiffer articulations of flesh and other textures. I have to admire what the artist accomplished in acrylic but I wonder if the attraction part of the attraction/repulsion response would be even stronger with optical complexity and luminosity of oil paint. And there are passages in the The Chosen (oil on canvas), in which the flesh gets really fleshy, not quite Lucian Freud fleshy, but fleshy.

This work is sort of haunted by art historical ghosts, though I find associations hard to pin down. The palette and composition sort of echo Thomas Hart Benton. The flavor of southern gothic reminded me of George Rodrigue’s pre-Blue Dog group portraits (which, in spite of myself, I find kind of interesting) Good Country People also reminded me of a Picasso painting. two actually, that I was recalling as one: Boy Leading a Horse and Family of Saltimbanques. Maybe it was the strangely posed figures, the rigid nudity, or the psychological heaviness. (By the way, I don’t really like Picasso’s paintings but you won't hear me argue that he was a genius.)

So while I cannot say I like these paintings this artist has my attention and respect. In the end I see something really important: the evidence of work, of hours and hours of labor and consideration, highly developed skills, and most significantly an artist pursuing his own strange vision on a scale that isn’t playing around.

One more point, not about the artwork but about the gallery, Coup d’oeil. On a local level, weird is okay but ugly is not. Not this kind of ugly. Not naked hillbilly ugly. In addition to acknowledging the artist’s chops and guts, I have to appreciate Ken Capone who owns a commercial (as in for-profit) gallery. He encourages artists to pursue their work as they feel compelled to even if (I imagine) profits might not follow. This work must be a hard sell for the kind of local art buyers who hang artwork in their dining rooms. One might not want to eat, sit, or sleep below a painting like The Chosen but Ken will show it anyway. And he deserves real props for that. 

(Some nice person should buy this painting and gift it to the Ogden.)

James Taylor Bonds   The Chosen   72 x 60 in